The Prosperity Symposium: Tackling Philadelphia’s Greatest Economic Mobility Challenges

The Prosperity Symposium: Economic Mobility Research in Action conference looked at components of economic mobility in Philadelphia and ways to reinvigorate the city’s approach to its greatest challenges: economic inclusion, security, and mobility.  


The purpose of the symposium was to convene a cross-sector team with a diversity of expertise on economic security in Philadelphia — ranging from local, experiential knowledge to theoretical, academic knowledge — to make meaning around their work and collaboratively devise a research and action agenda to guide poverty and prosperity interventions deployed at the University of Pennsylvania and beyond.


The Prosperity Symposium was committed to integrative, interdisciplinary research and action. The event harnessed the dynamic network of social impact practitioners, academics, business and industry leaders, and policymakers in the Philadelphia region, creating a forum for shared learning and decision-making.


Cassie Haynes, Co-Executive Director, Resolve Philadelphia, dedicated January 2019 as Economic Mobility Action Month in Philadelphia. She read from the Proclamation: “And whereas, collaboration forms the path towards an economically mobile future. Collective work and partnerships like University City District, Broke in Philly, the new North Philadelphia Workforce Initiative and the West Philadelphia Promise Zone are paramount to our progress towards a Philadelphia that prides itself on a resident’s capacity to be economically mobile.”


The Defining Mobility and the Importance of Narrative panel explored the components of economic mobility — financial success, value in the community, and power/autonomy — the importance of creating and promoting narratives that more accurately shape the way people think about poverty and economic insecurity, and the research that is needed to improve our understanding of narrative change interventions and their impact on the three components of economic mobility.  


Michael A. Nutter, 98th Mayor of Philadelphia, gave the welcome address. “Today at this symposium and for each day going forward, I want to call out Philadelphians to start changing their language and their narrative about our fellow Philadelphians and Americans. Let’s stop saying that people are poor but rather that someone is economically insecure,” he told the crowd.        


Larry Eichel, Project Director, and Octavia Howell, Officer, from Pew Charitable Trusts gave a presentation on Philadelphia’s Poor: Experiences from Below the Poverty Line. Howell said one of the major concerns for people experiencing poverty is housing. “We found that 4 out of 5 households who are experiencing poverty live in private market housing with no subsidies. 94 percent of those households are spending more than the recommended 30 percent of their incomes on rent and 80 percent are spending more than half of their incomes to pay for their housing costs,” she told the crowd.    


76 percent of violent crimes in Philadelphia were committed in areas with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more. “Philadelphians experiencing poverty were twice as likely to describe their general health as poor or fair, and they had higher levels of chronic illness. People living in the poorest parts of Philadelphia have life expectancies that are as much as 20 years shorter than those living in the wealthier parts of the city,” Howell added.  


Alicia Lozano, Digital Reporter and Producer, NBC Philadelphia, said the station “tries to engage a larger swath of the community because everybody to some extent does experience insecurity whether it is because of medical debt, or student debt or housing. It affects all people regardless of your income.”


Lozano said NBC Philadelphia looked at food insecurity. They spent a day looking at one zip code, seeing how people within that zip code were able to feed themselves. The story changes vastly based on the block. It was the 19125-zip code which is Fishtown and Kensington. “There is so much transition happening in there. You have people living next to each other; some are making six figures, some are making almost nothing. They are literally living next door to each other and they are shopping at the same places,” she said. “Insecurity does affect everybody, regardless of your income.”      


The Business, Equity, and the Future of Philadelphia panel brought together a cross-section of experts from industry, nonprofit, and academia to answer the question, “What does an inclusive future for Philadelphia look like?” Panelists discussed changes in work, economic insecurity, and the role business can play in building an equitable city.


At the heart of the economic mobility conversation are issues that matter to all of us, as a city, and they are issues that affect our collective future, said Patrick T. Harker, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.


“Economic mobility in Philadelphia — or anywhere else, for that matter — is something that affects everyone, whether they know it or not,” he said. Harker zeroed in on the Philadelphia Fed’s Economic Growth & Mobility Project (EGMP), which focuses on three foundational aspects of mobility: job creation, workforce development, and infrastructure.  


In northeastern Pennsylvania, for instance, Harker said they had one of the three foundational aspects: jobs at fulfillment centers. “But we lacked another: infrastructure. The centers are located outside of town, and the region was built like most of America in the latter half of the 20th century, constructed to bring commuters from the suburbs and outskirts into the city, not the other way around,” he said. So EGMP gathered a group of partners, and they came up with a collective set of solutions that worked for them — launching pilot programs, establishing a council on equitable transit, and making transit a priority in the area.


“With EGMP, we are forming partnerships around the Third District (eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Delaware) with communities that are engaged in addressing the systemic issues they face,” said Harker. “The Fed can offer research, data, and support, but communities are the ones that understand their own unique needs.”


The Philadelphia Fed has partnered with Philadelphia Works, Social Finance, and a local company to change the way the local workforce is prepared for the future of work. This pilot is a private/public partnership, in which the public sector will provide customized training and the employer will repay the cost of that training once outcomes are realized.  


“Overall, the economy is doing really well, but that is not a reality a lot of the people we meet with would recognize,” said Harker. “The reality of the tight labor market means that employers have to start thinking creatively and long term about how they are going to address the gaps in their workforces.”  


Cities thrive and grow when they attract investment, new businesses, and have a dynamic churn. But when a significant portion of the population has been left behind, it affects us all, Harker continued. “We face multiple issues that need to be addressed, and we cannot do it in isolation,” he said. “[W]e need every sector to participate and every problem challenged in unison.”